The Middle East in translation
Iraqi writer Muhsin Al-Ramli channels personal experience of wartime horrors
in The President's Gardens
PUBLISHED JUN 13, 2017
On the third day of Ramadan in 2006, Iraqi writer Muhsin Al-Ramli learnt that nine of his relatives had been murdered. Their severed heads had been found in banana crates, along with their identity cards, in a village street near his family's house.
In an e-mail interview in Arabic, Al-Ramli tells The Straits Times that while his novel may be filled with scenes of extraordinary violence, nearly all of it is written from what he knows in life.
This was the hardest part of the book to write, says Al-Ramli, who worked on those chapters in a public park instead of indoors because he felt "suffocated, as if I were living in the script".
"I tried to convince him not to do it. But the next afternoon, he did it in front of me - drops of blood and small pieces of the nerves and flesh of his palm flew into my face."
A man moves to Baghdad to become a gardener for the President. The gardens are beautiful, but they are fertilised by the corpses buried among the exotic trees and delicate waterfalls.
While the journey of each man is an absorbing one, it is humble Ibrahim, who moves through life's horrors in a state of constant resignation, who buoys the narrative. It follows him from the inferno of Kuwait, in which "the skies rained down hell, and the earth vomited it back up", to the terrible opulence of Saddam's gardens, where, against his will, he becomes chief gravedigger for thousands of the regime's victims.
If you liked this, read: The Corpse Exhibition And Other Stories Of Iraq by Hassan Blasim, translated by Jonathan Wright (Penguin, 2014, $19.21, Books Kinokuniya). In this groundbreaking collection of short stories of the Iraq war from the Iraqi perspective, Blasim blends the reality of soldiers, hostages and car bombs with touches of fantasy.